May, 2007

Pointe of View

pointeWhat to say and how to say it? Such is the artist’s eternal question.

How to present a coherent point of view is the challenge facing the Los Angeles Ballet, according to cofounder Thordal Christensen. “We need to bring different people to this endeavor who can help define [our point of view],” says the former dancer and Denmark native. “And what better place to do that than Los Angeles, where there is so much talent.”

And yet Christensen recognizes the need for unity among his troupe of terpsichores. “Our dancers are coming from different places,” he says, “and you have to make it look like we’re all coming from the same point of view.” This contradiction is clear, and results from the company’s fledgling status. Christensen knows he needs a point of view, he just doesn’t know what it is yet.

And for now his concerns are more pressing: “Producing great shows and building an audience — those are the two most important things.”

Los Angeles Ballet’s summer season commenced this weekend with three works by Balanchine. There were plenty of vacant seats at the Alex Theater show, and the program included a donation envelope, but the LA Times review was favorable and the performance splendid.

FineArtsLA recently spoke with Christensen, who founded the company with wife Colleen Neary, about their ambition to establish a ballet company in a city where others have failed.

FALA: Who is the audience for ballet in Los Angeles?

TC: A lot of women and families. But when women make their men go, the men enjoy it. And why shouldn’t they? — beautiful women and great pieces of art.

FALA: And the reason it’s mostly women is because they took ballet classes when they were younger?

TC: Yes, traditionally little girls take ballet and develop an interest that way. But whenever I talk to guys who come, they say they love it.

FALA: Your partner is also your wife.

TC: We’ve been married for 20 years and always worked together. She was an instructor and I was a dancer, then I was a director and she did various things. She’s been my boss and I’ve been hers. When you do what we do for so long, you find out what each other is good at and you support each other’s different strengths. We have a lot of staging and organizational experience, and I hope a point of view.

FALA: What is that point of view?

TC: Colleen grew up with Balanchine, while my background was more rooted in classics. That’s our history, and that’s what we’re bringing to Los Angeles Ballet. We want very much here in the beginning to show some real masterworks and show these dancers off, because they’re very good. And there are no better ballets than Balanchine ballets.

Long term we’d like to be more creative with new works and choreographers, plus other artists, whether lighting, costume or music. We need to bring different people to this endeavor who can help define it. And what better place to do that than Los Angeles, where there is so much talent.

But we need to establish a company first. Our dancers are coming from different places, and you have to make it look like we’re all coming from the same point of view. That’s something that takes time. thordal-photo-3.jpg

FALA: What do you mean by everyone having the same point of view?

TC: We did auditions in Los Angeles and New York, and of course you get different dancers with different backgrounds. When you’ve had a company for a long time you only bring in a few dancers a year. We brought in 20 dancers to create this company. There has to be a uniformity, a point of view, and that comes back to classes in the morning, what you do and how you execute steps — it’s back to basics.

FALA: And what are those basics?

TC: The most important things are musicality and ability. And then the question is how do you execute your dancing. Both Colleen and I are very colored from where we come from, which means we are very bold in the legwork and very soft, lyrical and expressive in movements.

FALA: Did the spring season meet your expectations?

TC: Yes. If you have great ballets and great dancers, something great will come out of it. In terms of attendance, we were exactly where we thought. But of course we’re going to have to build.

FALA: And how do you do that?

TC: Awareness, word of mouth. People have to hear about us, read about us, see us, and then you make a believer.

FALA: When will you get an orchestra?

TC: That’s a good question. We want live music, but at the same time we’re a young organization. You want everything, but you can’t have everything at once.

FALA: What’s the order of importance of the things you want? A live orchestra may be number five or 10.

TC: Yes, I’d say so. At the top of my list is that we’re able to produce great shows. And build an audience. Those are the two most important things. We also need to build our board and infrastructure, and just grow and grow.

FALA: What about a home venue?

TC: Our idea is very much to go out into the community. That’s what’s great about LA: different venues all spread out.

FALA: Does ballet suffer from a highbrow image, even more so than opera?

TC: I think it does, because what is more classic than “Swan Lake.” But dance is more than just high art. There’s such a stepping over into more modern expressions, but with a strong historical background, and I think that’s what works. We can afford to be a lot more creative than, say, the opera. The dance world has always been very innovative.

Pointe image by Rick Lord at

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Bess in Show

indira_mahajan1The life of a diva is filled with flowers, but they’re not all red roses flung upon the stage by adoring fans. Sometimes you have to buy the flowers yourself to brighten up a lonely apartment in a strange city.

Such is one of the many rituals of Indira Mahajan during her long months spent on the road working for whatever opera company offers her a job.

But this season is brighter than usual, not only because Ms. Mahajan is in Los Angeles, but because she’s singing a role she grew up on: Bess, in one of the two casts performing in LA Opera’s “Porgy and Bess.”

FineArtsLA spoke to Mahajan about her gypsy lifestyle, the chance to finally play Bess, and the ongoing controversy surrounding the Gershwin opera.

FALA: What’s your ethnic background?

IM: My father is Punjabi and my mother is black American from North Carolina. I was born and raised in New York City.

FALA: How did you become an opera singer?

IM: I started playing the violin at five, and my mother, being an opera singer, saw that I loved performing, so she provided me with opportunity. I went to arts camp and did school plays and ballet. And I grew up in a house where there was always classical music.

I went to the “Fame” high school and knew that I was going to do something. Then I went to Oberlin College and after I graduated I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sing anymore. I was thinking about public policy and was on my way to a Ph.D. I was discouraged and knew that singing would be a hard career choice. Then I met a teacher who said “Give me a year and let’s see if this is something you can actually do.”

FALA: What were you discouraged about?

IM: I thought there are so many artists and so few possibilities, and I had post-college angst about “What am I going to do with myself?” Just feeling unsure as to whether I could support myself doing this.

FALA: So how did you end up committing to the craft?

IM: I was very fortunate because being in New York I had access to some of the best teachers available. I did an opera workshop and it attracted a lot of managers and agents who go to conservatories to scout new talent. I was really fortunate to get picked up. I thought, “If this manager thinks he can represent me, then let’s go for it.”

FALA: What was your first job?

IM: Musetta in “La Boheme” with New York City Opera. I did a national tour, and then performed at Lincoln Center, and that was just unbelievable. This was 1997.

FALA: Since then you’ve performed in opera companies all around the country. How does that work? Do offers just keep coming in and you’re booked solid two years in advance?

IM: You hope you are. Usually you’re like an independent contractor; you don’t have an exclusive contract with one company. People here about you or you audition and that’s how you get jobs. That’s how you end up working for all these companies within a year. Another company may be doing a “Porgy,” so they’ll fly to LA and see it and hire me for their next one or some other opera. So you just hope you’ll get booked and get work.

FALA: How much throughout the year are you performing?

IM: You may do four or five operas a year, with each company having a six-week period. So that’s 24 weeks at least that you’re gone. And it can be really daunting to be away from home that long. Sometimes you’re gone almost the entire year.

FALA: What’s the hardest part about being on the road all year?

IM: It’s like being a gypsy. The hardest thing is to pack up and leave your home. But once you get there, I’m a creature of habit, so as soon as I get somewhere I settle in and find what channel “Law and Order” is on because that makes me feel connected to the world. Then there’s Netflix with movies I can watch, because you’re spending a lot of time by yourself. And then I go and buy some flowers or something that will make the apartment mine. And then with this job I’m traveling with my dog for the first time.

FALA: What is the Bess role like for you?porgy.jpg

IM: It’s incredibly gratifying to sing this role because when I was a child my mother did a “Porgy and Bess” and I got to be one of the orphans. I fell in love with this opera. I’d sit in the wings and watch it night after night. I learned everybody’s part and I’d perform the entire opera for my mother. So for me to get a chance to perform it is really a dream come true. Bess is the first leading lady I fell in love with.

FALA: How does “Porgy” compare to singing something like Donizetti?

IM: Only the language and culture is more familiar; it’s no less vocally challenging. I just finished doing “Madame Butterfly,” which was very vocally challenging, and Bess is up there as well. It’s a very physical and dramatic opera, and requires a great deal of stamina. It’s just a different style, like singing Bel Canto versus Wagner. All very demanding, just different styles.

FALA: Controversy has surrounded this opera since its inception, primiarly for portraying a group of black Americans as poor, drug-addled and violent. With so many decades of hindsight, what do you make of this?

IM: I understand the controversy surrounding this: You don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes and myths. And for a group of people that have been enslaved, you don’t want to continue that. You want them to be portrayed in a positive light. And there are aspects of “Porgy and Bess” that remain controversial. I think we have to look beyond the time it was written, to the themes that transcend that: love and loss, and of course the beautiful music.

FALA: How important is race in casting? No one bats an eye if Cio-Cio San is played by someone of another race.

IM: “Porgy” has to be performed by black artists, because it was written specifically for black artists. I think there was a clause in the Gershwin estate that there shouldn’t be white artists performing the roles in “Porgy,” except the detective and that sort of thing.

FALA: On a lighter note, what was it like attending the “Fame” school?

IM: I felt really proud to be there. In high school you feel geeky and awkward enough, but then you’re put in a setting with kids your age who have the same interests, and it’s very encouraging.

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Alternate Reality

The Norton Simon’s latest exhibit features the work of Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky, a member of the Expressionist group known as the Blue Four. The artists rejected the notion of objective reality, as evidenced by the image at left.

The exhibit features more than 100 paintings by Jawlensky (1864-1941) and will run through November 5.

“Motivated by an inner response to their subject matter,” writes the museum in a release, “and influenced by sources such as medieval art, folk art and non-Western art, [the Blue Four] created subjective, highly emotional and spiritual images composed of distorted forms and non-naturalistic colors.”

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You Say Goodbye, I Say Cello

walz-johnAs the crowd headed home after Friday night’s superb opening of LA Opera’s “Porgy and Bess,” I stopped by Kendall’s for a drink and ran into John Walz. It didn’t take more than a couple of iced teas for the opera’s principal cellist to get a few things off his tuxedoed chest.

Baroque music, for starters, has been “hijacked by fundamentalists” (LA’s own Musica Angelica, for example), whose dogmatic, “earlier-than-thou” approach to music extends not just to period instruments, but how they should be played. The growing acceptance of these “mannered and over-the-top” specialists kept Walz out of the orchestra for LA Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.” As for “Porgy,” it’s proven his favorite score to play this season, with the orchestration “a work of genius.”

The LA Opera’s season will close with Placido Domingo in “Luisa Fernanda.” Does Domingo still have his chops? While the tenor isn’t the man he was 20 years ago, Walz says, he’s “the best 67-year-old singer around. He sounds strong, not like an old man.”

Next season the company will present Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” The first time Walz had to play it, he was dreading the five-hour opera. But he says as soon as it begins it lulls him into a trance “and you don’t even look at your watch.”

Walz is a popular choice in Hollywood for work on film scores, having performed on over 700 soundtracks, most recently the summer blockbusters “Spider Man 3″ and “Pirates of the Carribean 3.” Though the work is tedious (despite the fact that what you hear in a film’s final cut was often sight-read by the orchestra), it’s lucrative, often bringing $1,000 a day, plus royalties.

Speaking of money, Walz was recently asked to join the London Philharmonic, but is unsure about having to work twice as hard for half the money in a city that costs twice as much.

Walz ended our chat with a few remarks about one of LA’s leading music critics. Whom does he find a “pretentious snob” ready to praise anything avant-garde while bemoaning anything light and melodic?

Two guesses.

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